Ending ticket books top ferry complaints

Many changes to the state ferries were not well-received by some local residents who recently told state ferry officials what they think.

About fifty people went to Freeland’s Trinity Lutheran Church’s old chapel Tuesday to hear, discuss and provide input about their views on several proposed changes to the ferry system later this year. Attendees walked through the room to look at large poster boards explaining the changes, provided oral comments to a ferry court reporter and filled out comment sheets throughout the two hour meeting.

It was an open house the Tariff Policy Committee, an advisory board for the state Transportation Commission, held to gather public input on their proposals for 2005. The proposals are replacing ticket books with electronically scannable bar coded cards, increasing all fares five percent, raising the minimum youth fare age from five to six years old, allowing passengers to buy one way tickets on the Internet up to a week in advance and replacing the monthly passenger pass with a scannable card.

The changes are intended to increase accountability, keep better track of ferry use and ensure ferries generate 80 percent of the operating costs from ferry user’s fares by 2007. The 80 percent goal began four years ago when the ferries lost approximately 75 percent of its revenue from the passage of Initiative 695.

The changes, however, did not seem to sit well with several South Whidbey residents for a variety of reasons.

Possible confusion by passengers on how to use the electrical scan system and frustration over paying higher fares each year for the last several years were some issues raised.

“I feel that I am being penalized for living on the island,” said Marlene Pacher, a Freeland resident and daily commuter. She said she pays about $2,400 a year to ride the ferry, a cost that will rise approximately $120 if the transportation commission approves the rates. The infrequent travelers and summer travelers should pay more than daily commuters to meet the ferries of raising 80 percent of operating costs through fares, Pacher said.

Other points of contention were paying a fare for a service the state should provide for free and the difficulty of using up a new cards in the shorter time allotted.

“I think it’s terrible that they are reducing our tickets from 90 days to 30 days,” said Clinton’s Jean Zook, a daily ferry commuter.

The plan calls for the replacement of the ferry’s 90-day 20 ticket book with either a 30 day commuter cards or 60 day convenience cards by the fall. The commuter card offers a 20 percent discount for 10 round trips and the convenience card provides a 15 percent discount for five round trips.

It is the proposal most people said they opposed at the open houses has been the cards, said Susan Harris-Huether, a ferry spokesperson, said

Intended to increase accountability, ferry officials said the cards help prevent passengers from passing tickets around to family and friends and keep track of the number of passengers. In addition, the workers at the terminal handle less cash, said Thom Opheim, project manager for the electronic fare system.

If the transportation board increases fares five percent, the higher fares will be effective on May 1. If that happens, fares will rise for a one-way Clinton to Mukilteo trip from $7.50 to $8 during peak season. The proposal also pushes adult walk-on fare up from $3.40 and $3.60 each way. Motorcycles, children between ages five and 18 and senior citizens must pay higher prices, as well.

However, the proposed changes are not set in stone. Michael Hodgins, a consultant for the ferries, said public opinion often compels the tariff committee to make changes before presenting their proposal to the Transportation Commission. The commission could approve the proposals at a March 23 public hearing in Seattle.

The local view

The open house provided local residents their only chance to talk with ferry officials in person on Whidbey Island about their concerns. It is a chance many took full advantage of.

Perhaps the most heated opposition stemmed from the state ferries continually rising fares to meet the goal of paying 80 percent of their operating costs from ferry fares.

Fares collected for passengers riding the Mukilteo to Clinton ensures the route more than collects 80 percent of the operating costs, said Langley resident Wolfgang Rasch. Therefore, the ferry passengers between Mukilteo and Clinton should pay less than the passengers on other ferries routes which do not collect 80 percent of the operating costs through fares.

Rasch added the ferries belong to the state Department of Transportation, which receive tax revenue. Yet ferry passengers must pay fares while taxes help ensure drivers travel for free public on roads. Clinton’s Doug Zoot shared Rasch’s concern.

“It’s double taxation,” he said of fares.

The fares are needed to raise the 80 percent for operating costs, said David Hammond, manager of financial accountability for the ferries. Taxes, including the additional five cent gas tax started in 2003, pay for capital projects. Those projects include four new ferries slated for completion in the next several years.

He said the ferries do not lower fares on the Mukilteo to Clinton because state legislators and transportation commission want revenues collected at each terminal to spread out to the entire ferry system. That way each terminal earns about 80 percent of the operating costs through fares, Hammond said.

In addition, Hammond said rising fuel costs will probaly prevent the Mukilteo to Clinton from meeting the 80 percent threshold this year.

Jean Zook said uncertainty about the mode of transportation she uses to commutes each day led to her opposition to the cards. During inclement weather, she said she drives on the ferry. When the weather is warm and dry, she walks on.

So, even with 90 days to use the tickets, she said she doesn’t always use her entire ticket book. By reducing the number of days with the cards, using all the trips in time becomes more difficult. David Hammond, the ferries’ manager of financial accountability, said ferry passengers should buy the 60-day five trip convenience card if they believe they may not use all 10 trips on the commuter card within 30 days.

Freeland’s Ron Hufstedler, who rides an Island Transit bus every day, said the new cards may confuse some passengers. With coupons, passengers know they are down to their last coupon they must buy more. In addition, some people might not understand how to buy cards from a kiosk or on the Internet.

To prepare for all scenarios, the ferries have run numerous tests on the EFS by everyone from senior citizen to people with disabilities, said EFS project manager Thom Opheim. Community outreach has also provided information about the system’s effectiveness.

The cards begin the state ferry’s long-term plan to put in an electronic fare system at all terminals by 2006. The EFS system will include electronic kiosks in the terminals. The kiosks provide the technology for walk on passengers and drivers to buy cards from a touch screen machine. The ferries will also sell cards on the Internet and at the terminals.

The cards require drivers to swipe the cards before entering the terminal. Walk on passengers must swipe the cards to pass through a turnstile and onto the ferry.

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